In early July I sit down and think of winter. With my boxes of vegetable seed and Joy Larkcom on the table before me this is when I start to plan what to sow from the end of the month and into August and September. Although it takes some discipline at midsummer to cast my mind into a dark, cold future these are the crops that are starting to provide for us now, so it is time well spent, ensuring that we are not simply dependent on a diet of roots and brassicas through the cold months.
Fennel – also known as bulb or Florence fennel, to differentiate it from the soft herb – is one of my favourite of these midsummer sowings. Despite having a reputation for being tricky, for us it has so far proven to be easy to germinate, trouble-free to grow on, easy to transplant and productive. In early August I sowed 24 modules with two seeds to each to allow for failures. Once germinated I removed the weakest seedling from each module.
Like all umbellifers fennel produces long tap roots, so I use root trainer modules of the sort you might use for sweet peas or broad beans. These ensure that the roots have space to grow down and don’t become tangled and congested, which prevents them from growing away when they are transplanted. Ideally fennel prefers to be sown in situ, but these summer sowings are destined for the polytunnel, and in August we are in the middle of prime tomato production, so the modules were put into the cold frame to germinate and grown on for about a month before being planted out in mid-September.
Fennel is a Mediterranean marsh plant, which needs rich soil and constant moisture to do well. Cold and drought will cause it to bolt in record time, sending up a tough flower spike which quickly makes the whole plant stringy and inedible in a matter of days. Even with very regular watering I have found it impossible to grow the huge, swollen white bulbs you see at the greengrocer or supermarket, but the flavour is good – some would say better – from the smaller ones. You often see these sold as ‘baby fennel’. I have read that lining the trenches you plant the fennel in with perforated plastic sheet retains more moisture and replicates the marsh-like conditions they favour and so I plan to try this method next year to see if it produces larger plants.
On the same day that I sowed the fennel I also made sowings of a new crop for us, ‘Black Spanish Round’ radishes. These were sown direct in the Kitchen Garden, in two rows 30cm apart with plants thinned to 15cm apart after germination. We have very bad flea beetle here which eat the emerging seedlings of all the brassicas we grow, but particularly turnips, swedes, Japanese mustard greens and radishes so all of these are covered with a layer of horticultural fleece or micromesh to protect them until the seedlings can grow away fast enough to leave the ravages of the beetles behind. A regular, careful check beneath the fleece is also needed to keep an eye on the ground slugs which can decimate a young crop. At this end of the season, you rapidly run out of re-sowing time if the first sowing is lost.
The radishes are now the size of tennis balls and have a rough dark skin, unlike the red-blushed breakfast radishes we are more familiar with. Beneath the skin the flesh is pure white, crisp and with the familiar radish pepperiness. They can be eaten raw when young or cooked in any recipe that calls for turnips, to which they bear a strong resemblance in flavour. Hardy up to -10°C they can be left in the ground all winter, but you will avoid slug damage or the predations of mice and voles if you lift them around now and store them somewhere cool and dark.
A fine, chilled sharply dressed fennel salad is one of the most uplifting of dishes for the winter table. The mild aniseed flavour and succulent crispness are invigorating and refreshing. While they are still young and tender enough I thought that these new radishes would pair well with the fennel and slices of succulent ‘Doyenné du Comice’ pear, harvested last month and which we are bringing into the house one at a time to ripen on the window sill.
Both the fennel and radish should be as finely sliced as possible using a mandolin or a very sharp knife. It is essential to put them both into iced water as this crisps them up and causes the radish to curl, which adds to the attractiveness of the plate.
If you are not able to get black radish then a small turnip will be a better substitute than breakfast radishes, which in any case are hard to come by at this time of year and too small to have the right kind of textural impact here. Alternatively, and perhaps easier to find, are the long Japanese radishes known as mooli.
This is a good companion to rich meat dishes, oily fish or a cheeseboard.
200g black radish, turnip or mooli
1 large, perfectly ripe pear
6 leaves of red or variegated chicory. e.g. Palla Rossa or Castelfranco
1 lemon, juiced
1 lemon, juice and zest
1 tbsp crème fraiche or Greek yogurt
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey or maple syrup
3 tbsp hazelnut oil
3 tbsp rapeseed oil
A small bunch of mint, leaves removed
A small handful of fennel fronds, removed from the stalks
Set the oven to 180°C. Put the hazelnuts into a baking dish in the oven and allow to toast for 10 minutes, checking regularly to prevent burning. Alternatively heat a small frying pan and toast the nuts until fragrant and lightly scorched. Allow to cool, rub off the skins and crush coarsely in a mortar.
Put all of the dressing ingredients, except the herbs, into a bowl and whisk to combine. Chop the mint and fennel very finely and add to the dressing.
Fill a large bowl with cold water and either add ice cubes or put into the freezer for 20 minutes to thoroughly chill.
Peel the radish and slice as thinly as possible using a mandolin or very sharp knife. Put the slices into the iced water. Do the same with the fennel.
In a medium sized bowl put the juice of the first lemon and a cup of cold water.
Carefully cut the pear into quarters, core and cut each quarter lengthwise into 6 slices. Immediately put the slices into the lemon water as you go to prevent browning.
Tear the radicchio into pieces.
Drain the radish and fennel. Put into a salad spinner or clean tea towel to get as dry as possible. Return to the bowl with the torn radicchio. Pour over about two thirds of the dressing and mix with together your hands to combine and coat everything.
Remove the pears from the lemon water and dry on a clean tea towel. Add to the salad and very carefully combine so as not to break the pear pieces.
Using your hands, carefully arrange the salad on the serving plate. Pour over the remainder of the dressing. Scatter a few reserved fennel fronds. Toss over the hazelnuts and serve.
Recipe and photographs | Huw Morgan
Published 13 November 2021